Joan Crawford - Lucy Harbin
Diane Baker - Carol Harbin
John Anthony Hayes - Michael Field
Leif Erickson - Bill Cutler
Rochelle Hudson - Emily Cutler
George Kennedy - Leo Krauze
Mitchell Cox - Dr. Anderson
Howard St. John - Raymond Fields
Edith Atwater - Mrs. Fields
Lee Majors - Frank Harbin
Genre - Horror/Thriller
Running Time - 93 Minutes
Score - 3.5 Howls Outta 4
I'm starting to think that adultery is the worst sin one could make within a marriage. Sometimes I even wonder why men [in this case] even do it. You spend so much money and time on one woman. You pay for her on dates. You buy her an expensive engagement ring. You probably pay for some of the wedding. You have children with her. And yet, you'd rather risk all of that just for a single roll in the hay that's probably not all that great to begin with. Unless it's with Sienna Miller. From her track record, she seems to be excellent with her homewrecking skills.
Anyway, your wife comes home and finds you in her bed with your slutty lover. Yeah, she's gonna be pissed and just chew you out and demand a divorce. No problem, right?
Not if you're married to Joan Crawford. She'll grab that sharp axe nearby and decapitate your cheating ass for making her feel like a fool. Just like she does to Lee Majors in William Castle's 1964 B-movie camp horror flick, STRAIT-JACKET. Ms. Crawford is not a bitch you mess with, ladies and gentlemen. She cut off her husband's head for messing around on her. Imagine if she caught the guy using wire hangers. Don't fuck with her, fellas!
Frank Harbin (an uncredited Lee Majors in his first film role) picks up some slutty dame (Patricia Crest) at a bar and takes her home to shag the night away, even though his young daughter, Carol, is right in the next room. And parents don't teach their children the dangers of unsafe sex...psh! Anyway, Frank's wife Lucy (Joan Crawford) returns home sooner than expected, catching Frank and his lover asleep after their minute [and I'm being generous] of fun. Being Mommy Dearest, Lucy grabs an axe and chops off both their heads in front of young Carol. Lucy is declared a wackjob and locked away in a mental asylum.
Twenty years pass and Lucy is finally deemed sane enough to live a normal life. She returns back to her home on the farm and is greeted by her now older daughter, Carol (Diane Baker), who welcomes her back with open arms and begins treating Lucy as if she had never left - even dressing up Lucy in the same look she had twenty years ago. But soon enough, Lucy begins to hear and see things - such as decapitated heads laying next to her in bed and nursery rhymes about her actions years ago. Lucy tries to hold it together, until her former doctor (Mitchell Cox) drops by to take her back to the asylum. Suddenly he ends up decapitated later that night, leading to a chain of events that makes Lucy the suspicious party.
STRAIT-JACKET is one ham-fest of B-movie goodness. It was obviously inspired by the massive success of PSYCHO (1960) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). This is evident from William Castle's hiring of Robert Bloch, who wrote the original novel that was the basis for PSYCHO, and of Joan Crawford, who had starred in WEHTBJ?. STRAIT-JACKET is not as good as those two films, but there's still a lot to like here.
Robert Bloch's story is pretty much structured in almost a similar way to PSYCHO's, including that twist ending that's pretty predictable but no less fun. In fact, the whole story is pretty simple and easy to see how it'll turn out. But at least the psychology of the drama in STRAIT-JACKET makes enough sense for it to be logical. There are no gimmicks here, like in William Castle's usual works. It's just a straight story about a woman who did horrible things under circumstance and must come to grips with retaking her life, although things out of her control attempt to stop that. It's just done in a campier style that will probably make you smile more than it will terrify you. This is the kind of film that if I get too much into it, I'll probably reveal things that will give away the twist. I'm not sure how many people from our current generation have seen this film, so let me just say that while fairly routine and full of horror cliches and conventions of the time [as well as developed enough supporting characters that don't steal the spotlight from Joan Crawford - just how she would have wanted it], STRAIT-JACKET still has a very good story that will never bore you.
Watching the documentary on the DVD called "Battle-Axe: The Making of STRAIT-JACKET", you learn alot about what happened behind the scenes in a short 14 minutes. It was obviously Joan Crawford's show from the start, even though she wasn't the first choice to play Lucy [Joan Blondell was supposed to star but was injured at home prior to shooting]. Crawford has script and cast approval [which was proven when she fired Anne Helm and replaced her with Diane Baker to play her daughter], a $50,000 salary, and even 15 percent of the film's profits. Crawford also made sure the sets were doused with cold temperatures to keep her face tight to keep her looking young. She even hired Mitchell Cox, the Vice-President of PepsiCo [which Crawford was on the Board of Directors], to play her psychiatrist in the film. There's even Pepsi products in the background. And then there's the ending that she originally was not a part of [the reveal of the twist proves that crazy bitches need shock therapy and need to stay away from my ass] and felt unsatisfied by that very fact, inserting her own scene at the end to make sure she was the star. You'd think all these things would ruin a production, but it only makes STRAIT-JACKET that much more fascinating and doesn't really effect the film at all.
Modern audiences may be taken aback by the lack of blood, gore, and even on-screen kills in STRAIT-JACKET. One of the deaths is very memorable for the fact that one of the actors is replaced by a very unconvincing wax dummy that's supposed to look like the actor as he gets his head chopped off. This isn't a big-budgeted film, so it's totally understandable that the murder sequences weren't really top notch. Still, it doesn't make them any less funny.
William Castle, who directed classics such as THE TINGLER, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), 13 GHOSTS (1960), and MACABRE, does pretty good here. Having seen WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? 17 times before producing and directing this film, Castle attempts to keep the schlock elements out and make a serious A-list film. Unfortunately, Castle could never live the B-movie thing down but still does enough to create a good psycho-thriller. There are moments of surrealism and attempts to shock, especially during flashbacks with Lucy slamming the axe down on her husband and lover and moments where Lucy screams while strapped into a straitjacket. There's even a scene near the end where Lucy screams inside a bathroom that's covered in stripes to create some sort of metaphorical prison. Plus Castle leaves clues and certain elements in every shot [like sharp weapons and such] that make you chuckle. The cinematography by Arthur E. Arling is very nice, as the picture looks beautiful. The editing and pacing is pretty well done. I still think THE TINGLER is Castle's best work but STRAIT-JACKET is definitely up there. Castle doesn't visually try and do much, letting the script and acting do the talking for him.
And boy, does the acting do alot of talking. Especially by ham-queen herself, Joan Crawford. Crawford totally takes over the entire movie from beginning to end, playing a 40-year-old woman in her 60s [she gives the word "cougar" a whole new meaning], and being very loud verbally and physically to make sure our focus is on her and on her only. And it's a remarkable and brilliant performance, as she may look mean and edgy, but displays a level of sadness, confusion, and vulnerability at the same time. Crawford makes sure we understand Lucy's inner torment, especially during her bombastic speech near the end where she yells to someone that spending 20 years in an asylum was hell - HELL! For a B-movie, Crawford gives an A-list performance. People have said that if this were a more mainstream and accepted film, Crawford would have received an Oscar nomination. I probably wouldn't bet against that.
The other actors don't have much to do, even though it wouldn't matter with Joan Crawford chewing the scenery in every which way she can. The only real actor of note other than Crawford is Diane Baker, who plays Carol. She's very likable and pretty to look at. She has that girl-next-door quality that's very appealing, especially when she's up against Crawford's force of nature. Baker has a big moment at the end of the film, but unfortunately Crawford made sure she had the last word, which sucks but what can you do? Still, Diane Baker gives a nice performance to counter Crawford's hammy one.
THE FINAL HOWL
STRAIT-JACKET is a surprisingly good time. It's not perfect and it's fairly predictable and dated, but watching Joan Crawford be Joan Crawford is never boring. Plus the film is very watchable and a lot of fun. Definitely rent this one if you haven't seen it. Who knows? Maybe it'll give you advice as to how to deal with that cheating husband/wife of yours. And if you're anything at the Columbia Studios image at the end, you'll laugh your head off at the campiness that is STRAIT-JACKET.